Good Lord! 

This is the same actor who, as a teen, was so endearing as Arpad in the 2016 revival of SHE LOVES ME?

Well, at least Nicholas Barasch proves in Irish Repertory Theatre’s harrowing, uncompromising and revolting THE BUTCHER BOY that he has exceptional range. 

Don’t look for any redemption here from Irish lad Francie Brady, which seems to be a purposely and ironically innocent nickname for this gruesome bully, thief and killer.

(Yes, killer). 

Worse, Francie doesn’t appear to have the slightest inclination to straighten out. Such a thought doesn’t cross his demented mind.

Because a neighbor calls his family “a bunch of pigs,” Francie picks up a new delusion: he sees pigs in his mind. Actors must play the porcine creatures, but they’re not assigned big pink costumes. However, if you’re the type of theatergoer who hates shows where performers wear half-masks that cover hairline to lip, that’ll be just another reason to avoid THE BUTCHER BOY.

To be fair, this may be one of those shows that wants us to believe that it’s all happening in the character’s mind and that he hasn’t remotely perpetrated any of the atrocities. Even if this were the case, we get the impression that if he had the opportunity and didn’t worry about being incarcerated, he would perform every wrongdoing he could. 

Perhaps director Ciaran O’Reilly assumed that he addressed this fantasy issue through designer Kat C. Zhou’s stop-and-start different colored lights, but audience members can be pardoned if they simply feel that these are lighting effects to underline the atrocities rather than show that they’re not really happening. 

Reportedly, Patrick McCabe’s 1992 novel and Neil Jordan’s film five years later have a few details that the musical omits. Still, there’s enough left to repulse the toughest theatergoer. 

You’re already saying, “But what about Sweeney Todd?” There are differences, and profound ones. Sweeney has been wronged and was incarcerated for years on a trumped-up charge. Francie’s mental illness comes from being part of a dysfunctional family. 

All right, it’s more dysfunctional than the ones we have all lived through, but we can’t admire a character who has no introspection and isn’t interested in doing the right thing. Put Francie in any situation, and he seems to want – genuinely and uncaringly want – to do some major or minor evil.

By Act Two, Francie winds up in a type of hospital-cum-asylum – and rightly so. After he’s released, we see that the staff made quite a mistake with him. There’ll be yet another jaw-dropping atrocity for another character (and for many theatergoers).

Both Sweeney and Francie are mentally unbalanced, yes, but we see Sweeney’s slow-but-sure descent into madness was exacerbated by someone else’s bizarre suggestion. Not that Francie’s life is a day in Disney World, but it can’t begin to compare to the horrors that Sweeney endured. No wonder that Francie’s former best friend eventually doesn’t want to know him. That sets Francie off again rather than having him take responsibility for why the lad ended the friendship.

SWEENEY TODD reminds us that revenge is a stupid pursuit, and that people who are obsessed with getting it ultimately pay a high price for it. Nothing of the kind happens to Francie. At the final curtain, he’s still alive and NOT well.

And yet, and yet, and yet … you’ll be surprised to now read that this is a terrific debut of someone who knows how to write a musical. 

What’s more astonishing is that Asher Muldoon is currently a student at Princeton University. 

But he sure hasn’t written one of the university’s happy-go-lucky, spoof-filled Triangle Club Shows … 

Adding to the achievement is that he hasn’t just written the book or the lyrics or the music; he’s actually done all three at a time in his life when his peers who want to write a musical take on one job and give up by Scene Three. Musical theater fans don’t need all ten fingers to count the people who have written all three components of a musical, but they will have to use another finger now (with this show that seems to give its audience the finger …).

An aside: I’m reminded of seeing a first musical by young people some decades ago. I didn’t much like it, and I was told by the theater’s artistic director that the two writers were devastated that I didn’t, for they felt that they’d achieved something wonderful. 

As the years have gone on, both have made it to Broadway many times, and have made millions upon millions. When some months ago I talked to the composer and asked if he and his collaborator ever gave a thought to revisiting that early property, I got a wince and dismissive wave as a response.

Perhaps the day will come when Asher Muldoon will have second thoughts about his first show, too. Of course he has every right to write what he damn pleases, but here’s hoping that his next one won’t deal with such a repulsive character and situations.

Barasch is game for everything, and has the talent to match, in a galvanizing performance. The famous statement that you can’t look and yet can’t look away applies here. He’s so appealing an actor that we feel bad that he has to play the loathsome character, but for all we know, he may very well be as taken with Francie as Muldoon was.

(Or Barasch may just need the money – or the work for insurance purposes.)

Michelle Ragusa is marvelous as always as the neighbor who makes the pig analogy, and Daniel Marconi, as her son, knows how to play a victim (and cavort happily in what is clearly a fantasy sequence). All the rest pass muster in a musical that doesn’t.

When PAL JOEY opened in 1940, Brooks Atkinson famously said of its titular anti-hero, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” 

Here the question becomes “Can you draw sweet water from an overflowing septic tank?”